Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Promises - Part one.

Other people will tell me I’m wrong, but I think it all started when the first eye was sold. Our town had never been well-off. A couple of streets of shops and houses, surrounded by fields and the outback. We’d got by, just about. There was always enough for at least one new dress every three months.

When strangers came to town there was seldom any stir about it. People passed through all the time. Sometimes they stopped only for the night, in order to rest and restock before hurrying on their way. Sometimes they’d set up shop in one of the abandoned old buildings and camp there for a week or so, selling their crafts, until they’d earned enough to move on.

My friend had the most beautiful house. I remember none of us even ever remembered how it came to be there. It was big, made entirely of wood, with sanded oak limbs for beams, and slatted steps that were worn down and shiny from the amount of feet that tramped up and down them to take a closer look at the house.

When Mr Farner got back home from the first appointment, he pushed his hat back from his eyes and saw that his livelihood, his apple orchard, was being devoured by a plague of locusts. I remember we all pitched in to help. The orchard couldn’t be saved, but the locusts could be killed before they moved on. We doused the trees in paraffin, blanketed as they were with the bugs, and set them alight.

These two newcomers seemed no different. Just another couple carrying their life in a case. They set up in an empty house on the end row of houses. She said nothing to anyone unless it was necessary. Pale skin and long nails and red lips. Her dyed hair was always perfectly styled. She wore clinically white coats over dark blue dresses. She smelt of vanilla mixed with disinfectant.

The rumour was that my Emme had wrote the house. That it had started off as a normal, rundown settlement, until she moved in and, by the power of her writing, recreated her home. Admittedly I started the rumour. And I’m still not sure that I don’t believe it myself. We’re both storytellers, she and I. It’s just that I write my stories and she lives hers.

I remember that Mrs Crocus was the second one to go. She had always been greedy. Although now, when I look back on it, I’m not sure that greed was always the driving force behind the decision. Some would have called her brave to have given up so much for such a vague return. I called her brash. Within a few days all of her jams went bad. The mould that has been festering in a couple, and had driven her to the clinic, so it is said, spread to the rest of her hundreds of jars. Even the ones she’d already sold.

She bought soap and paraffin and candles. Her nails clicked at the counter as she waited. We hardly ever saw her partner; although sometimes on light evenings they’d walk arm in arm down the street. She with her white coats and pale skin, and him in a heavy black coat, collar upturned, and a hat pulled down over his eyes. We never, ever heard him speak.

The house was full of… everything. Wooden sculptures stood out the front; vague shapes of dragons and angels and strange creatures. Inside, the patterned carpets were layered on top of each other, creating a thick pile of comfort coating the floorboards. The tiles in her hallway and kitchen were dark, dulled by layers of age. Except for a select few, dotted amongst the rest, that were clean and polished and that sparkled and glittered in comparison.

Soon you could spot them amongst the others. The people who had already had the appointment walked as though they were being followed by a dark shadow. They moved slowly, their faces turned down and away from those who went past. They walked in shame, knowing that they were the weak ones, and regretting their decision as soon as they had made it.

It’s not that they weren’t civil. At first noone made the connection between them and the multiplying numbers of empty eyes and black glances. Then the word got round of the return being offered, and as the numbers of patients grew, so did the couple’s confidence. And silence. They no longer needed to say anything; clothes were handed to them without question, food was provided without hesitation, crowds parted for them like the Red Sea.

The house was littered with books. They lay scattered on the floor, brown pages waving like crippled moths, and stacked in waist-high piles by the doors. The walls were hung with detailed tapestries that confused your mind if you stared at them too long; drew you in until you were no longer on the worn floorboards, underneath the heavy beams, but standing in lush green forests, or on the edge of a distant sea, with the creatures of that world gathered at your feet.

Noone blamed them. As more and more people succumbed to the promises, so did more and more people accept it. It became almost as normal as seeing the leaves fall in winter. The hat shop began to add special details to the latest fashions: Miniature top hats and straw bowlers came with a sweep of dark material over one side of the face to hide the shame. But still as each person attended the clinic they recognised their weakness and it became carved into their faces in humiliation.

The couple soon moved. They vacated the run-down building in the end row of houses, and the relief of their neighbours was obvious in their faces. They moved instead to the now empty pharmacy. They suited the white walls and dark corners, the pristine counters and murky windows.

When you walked through the door, hundreds of pairs of eyes would follow you. Emme had company galore in her house. They lined the edges of the room and crouched in the corners; silent, watchful persons, their bodies exuding the tangled webs of their individual stories. A family of strangely wakeful owls nested in the living-room ceiling, their huge orbs of eyes reflecting the light. Cats prowled around the furniture. And star-patterned faces grimaced through the windows.

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